Sunday, October 19, 2008

A bit of politics...

I am so old that I remember when Ben Elton was funny doing stand-up.

As the BBC link above says; “the alternative comedy movement of the 1980s provided the perfect home for his anti-Thatcher material, (Oooh! Little bit of politics there)” and, since the economy seems to be heading back to the 80s I’ll add a little bit of politics to the blog in honour of those memories, and in the context of the continuing debate about UNISON’s political funds.

Trade unions – about which I am normally droning on here – are pretty much a consistent feature of every developed capitalist economy. As workers in a society where everyone is supposed to be pursuing their own interests we generally manage to work out that we are stronger together in the workplace.

It’s a small leap from there to realise that we need political influence for our interests as workers beyond the workplace also – not least since the law isn’t on our side.

In this country, a little over a hundred years ago, the original Labour Representation Committee became the Labour Party, the peculiar British manifestation of social democracy, with a federal structure and a very particular organisational link to trade unionism.

Ever since, socialists in the trade unions have faced the dilemma of how to relate to a political party which has generally commanded the support of working people whilst, when in office, frequently betraying or attacking us in return for that support.

Some socialists who were in at the start left pretty much straight away, whilst others left in the 30s. Some tried to affiliate and weren’t allowed in, and others were witch hunted out. In the mean time socialists within the Labour Party have organised in one way or another over the years – and continue to do so.

Anyone active in trade unions will have experienced the debate between those within and without the Labour Party from time to time. This debate has become more acute under New Labour, whose leaders generally revel in their hostility to trade unionism.

Certainly, now more than ever, we need trade unions to speak up for the interests of our members – as I think the UNISON NEC did over the financial crisis. This will require trade unions to be prepared to be assertive in promoting independently the interests of our members. This won’t be achieved by an approach which celebrates the illusion of influence over Government Ministers.

I have a very great deal of sympathy for some of those, particularly in unions not affiliated to the Labour Party, who want to see the development of a political party which would represent the interests of working people in the way in which our Party in Government hardly has.

I also understand why some of those elected to senior positions in the Labour Party, or even in the Parliamentary Labour Party itself cease to stomach what Liz Davies called the “cult like atmosphere” of New Labour. It must be much easier to remain in the same political party as most of the present Government if you never have to meet them!

However, there is no immediate prospect of a serious political alternative to the left of the Labour Party, nor is there any evidence that those socialists who have left the Labour Party in the past twenty five years (whether voluntarily or otherwise) have made the emergence of such an alternative any more likely by their departure.

I know that to many of my friends and comrades in the unions the idea that I believe in working for socialism as a Labour Party member is almost laughable. I certainly agree it’s a long shot – but no longer than the alternative dream of a “new workers Party” (in any of its variants).

The truth is – sadly – that the only honest answer to the question of how we achieve lasting political progress towards socialism (in the long term interests of trade union members) is “I don’t know.” What I do know is that socialists should be active trade unionists and need to work together. In this way we can all maximise our usefulness in the struggles out of which we may find an answer to that question.

The contribution which those of us who are in the Labour Party can make to such joint working depends upon our being serious about our own politics. To secure a political voice for working people we need to reconstitute a Labour Party – we cannot do this by working exclusively with those inside the Party, but we cannot do it from outside either.

I would like to think that the forthcoming review of UNISON’s political fund will be an occasion for some serious thought about these questions. After all, every socialist who holds a Labour Party card has to be an optimist…

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